December 4, 2002: A moment with...

A moment with...
Edward Tenner ’65

Whether it’s the chair and its influence on society, or the changing role of antennae in our physical landscapes, Ed Tenner ’65, author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (1996), looks at how humans use objects and how objects affect humans. Tenner, who has been at Princeton since 1990 in various departments, is a visiting research collaborator in the English department this year. He’s also finishing his book Our Own Devices: the Past and Future of Body Technology, to be published in the spring. One of his projects at Princeton was to look at the 1893 honor code, which has remained largely unchanged over the years. Here, he speaks with PAW’s Lolly O’Brien. (Photo by Ricardo Barros)

You’ve studied a wide range of things, including hats, boilers, computers, and chairs. How is it that you have such disparate interests?

I was asked by a research scientist at the Intel laboratories once, “How did you learn to think like that, out of the box?” which is a very flattering thing. As I think back on it, I would say, the hard way. This way of looking at things didn’t come from my formal education, although the formal education made it possible. For example, from history professor James Billington ’50 when he was my adviser, I learned a way of combining significant details with sweeping statements. He has been the master of that.

Of all the things you studied, what has grabbed you the most?

I wouldn’t say there’s a subject I find most compelling. I find individual data that some people would call trivial extremely interesting. It’s a good principle to look for the surprising, out-of-place statement, even if it’s buried somewhere in a subordinate clause, because that can be the entryway into a whole area that you weren’t necessarily aware existed.

Is this what happened with you and the honor code?

When I was doing my research for a lecture on Woodrow Wilson, a large number of articles from the 1890s and early 20th century were about the extent of cribbing by students everywhere. Cribbing was a kind of collective proactive program for getting by. It was based on what was called at the time “school-boy honor.” The majority of students did not like cribbing. But there was a substantial minority who believed in it. They would put social pressure on the others to go along.

There was quite a bit of Christian fervor at the time. How did that influence the students?

President Patton in his sermons and in his ethics course would point out to the students that cribbing was a sin. Even though they were constantly reminded that it was wrong, they still did it. But you have to remember that this was a game the students were playing against the faculty. It was a mentality very different from what we have now. They weren’t doing it for professional advancement. They were cribbing because they didn’t like to work.

Was there anything that stood out when you were researching the honor code?

Looking at faculty meeting minutes before the code was adopted, what was surprising was that nobody in the faculty ever stood up in a meeting and said, “We’ve got to do something about the cribbing.”

So how did the code come about?

Most important innovations almost always have somebody’s name connected directly with them. One interesting thing about the honor code, an important innovation at Princeton, is that it isn’t really clear exactly who is responsible. A lot of people would say Woodrow Wilson was the one responsible. But this was really a student initiative. I found two names, Charles William Ottley 1893, who became a medical missionary in Turkey, and James Maclin Broadnax 1894, mentioned in context with the code. And I learned these two had come from a small school, the Webb School in Tennessee, where there was an honor code.

What was the original wording of Princeton’s honor code?

I pledge my honor as a gentleman that during this examination I have neither given nor received assistance. “Honor as a gentleman” was a phrase actually defended by Wilson in a faculty meeting. That was the extent of his direct involvement in the honor code, from what I can determine. Woodrow Wilson was impressed that students on their own initiative wanted a different relationship with the faculty. They wanted partners in learning and weren’t just some spoiled kids who were going to get by. The adoption of the honor code did mark a new attitude.


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